Sam Brooks re-assesses Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in the wake of ten months of post-release content and works out what the game did right, did wrong, and did weird.
Twelve years on, Assassin’s Creed remains one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. Every release manages to garner critical acclaim and sell millions of copies, even though the fan response can vary wildly from hissing disdain to rapturous love.
Origins, 2017’s Egypt-set instalment, was warmly but not rapturously received. It changed up the formula of the series so much that became less a stealth-based assassination festival and more just another third-person action game that carried on the troubled story of the franchise.
The tightly-structured assassination missions of the previous games were replaced by ‘choose-your-own-path’ missions, and the well-populated urban areas were replaced by, well, sand. Lots and lots of sand. Fans were uneasy about the myriad changes, and any buzz around the game died out before that year’s end.
In 2018, Odyssey took the ball that Origins fumbled and ran with it, about as far from the series’ roots as it could reasonably get. At the time, I said that it wasn’t really an Assassin’s Creed game, which I stand by. But ten months after the fact, in the wake of a surprisingly great slate of post-release content, let’s take a look at what it did right, what it fumbled, and what was honestly just plain old strange about Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
It’s not exactly that Odyssey gave us the first good Assassin’s Creed story, it’s more that it delivered the first great Assassin’s Creed story. It was a story of true Grecian tragedy, brother versus brother, that sort of thing. So much of the franchise has tried to do intimate character drama, and it’s cruelly ironic that the one time they managed to achieve this is when they went big.
Even more importantly, they finally managed to get the tone right. The tone of Assassin’s Creed as a franchise has always been a difficult one to parse, and it often depends on who the protagonist for that particular game is. You’ve got your Altairs, your Connors, and your Bayeks with their single-minded, humourless pursuits of revenge which leave little room for lightness or colour. And then you’ve got your Ezios, your Jacobs, your Evies, who let both player and story breathe a bit more with jokes and genuine warmth towards the other humans in the game.
In Odyssey, there’s just the right amount of dramatic intensity and genuine pathos. The game’s approach to the struggle between family and obligation is surprisingly nuanced, while still mining a lot of humour from its cast of real-life Greek figures. Not only does this make it a more bearable time for players, it makes Alexios/Kassandra feel like a fuller, more human, character. Even if you’re a murdering mercenary, you’ve still gotta make time for some laughs.
Assassin’s Creed has always, for better and often for worse, been an open world franchise. The upside is that when it goes to a recognisable locale (London, Rome, Paris) those places have been recreated with as much fidelity as can be expected. Which is to say, nothing is to scale.
Odyssey takes it a bit further and gives you the entirety of Greece to explore, monuments and all. It ends up being the best of both worlds: it takes The Witcher 3‘s richly populated open world and mixes it with the fidelity that these games have done so well. Hell, there’s even a Discovery Mode which allows the player to turn off enemy encounters and wander around Greece, learning things. Classics nerds, take note.
I mean, why wouldn’t you ride through Ancient Greece on the back of this glorious beast?
Also… the story.
Look, there’s not a lot of games that can maintain a single story over 70 hours, and while Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sticks the landing of all three plotlines (family, Atlantis, the Cult), there are meandering moments where the wheels feel like they’re being spun. An entire thread that sends you across the Greek world to find your mother drops the momentum entirely, and the game spends far too much time letting you meander around Sparta. In a game with this much to do it’s not a problem, but when you can spend a good 10 to 20 hours doing side content without touching the story at all, without feeling like you’re missing it, that’s not necessarily a great thing.
A big problem of Odyssey, which took the roleplaying elements introduced in Origins and ran with them, was how little your gameplay choices, outside of pre-determined story choices, seemed to affect the world around you. As a misthios (Greek for mercenary), you could take jobs from both Sparta and Athens, killing literally hundreds from either army – but you could also be happily working for the other side at that point in the story. The segregation between gameplay and story is something that’s plagued games since the dawn of Pac-Man, but it felt particularly egregious here.
If there’s anything that confirms Odyssey as an Assassin’s Creed game – more than jumping off of high buildings into bales of hay, even more than pressing Triangle to Assassinate – it’s how repetitive it is. Once you get about five hours in, conservatively 10 percent into the game’s main story, you’ve more or less done every variation of mission this game is going to throw at you. Full disclosure: I have played this game for 125 hours over the past 10 months and have never gotten bored, so work that one out, Mr. Einstein!
Even worse, this is built into the story missions. With few exceptions, there’s not a lot to differentiate one mission from the other – go here, murder this person here, do it stealthily only if you feel like it. It’s a far cry from the highly structured assassinations of Syndicate, which made you work for your victories and play into the game’s stealth mechanics. In Odyssey, if you want to waltz in and slash away until faceless Greek mooks stop trying to slash you, you’re welcome to.
One of the game’s selling points is, of course, the freedom to do that in the first place. But often it feels like, rather than offering the player a guiding hand, the developers are throwing up their hands at the prospect of structuring a mission. It’s the difference between creating an adventure playground and just letting a kid make his own fun in the sandbox.
Once more, for the people in the back, the story.
Another tension in the Assassin’s Creed franchise is the divide between its modern day story and the actual setting of the games. To explain, briefly, the whole concept of the franchise is that someone in the present day is hopping into a machine, called the Animus, to experience the lives of one of their ancestors in order to find some apocalyptic artefact in the present day. It is as complex as it is dumb.
Ostensibly, the modern day story resolved at the end of Assassin’s Creed III when Desmond sacrificed himself so a solar flare wouldn’t destroy the Earth. However, the franchise has kept the modern day story limping along feebly, many games beyond the point where anybody, even if you’ve played all the games, could keep track of who was winning in the endless conflict between Assassins and Templars. Also, there’s a subplot about a precursor race (the Isu) that pops up just frequently enough to be relevant and infrequently enough for you to forget about it.
For Odyssey’s final piece of DLC, The Fate of Atlantis, they finally focused on this precursor race, and filled in a lot of gaps. The setting – Elysium, Hades, and Atlantis – allowed the developers to use the plentiful assets they’d used in their Greek world for a more fantastical setting, and through some narrative backbends, it allowed the series to properly delve into this precursor stuff. It was wild, it was silly, and it was the most forward movement the meta-narrative has had in ages. Does it make it good? Absolutely not! But I’m 10 years into this bullshit at this point, and happy as a pig in muck to be flopping around in it.
Put simply: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was more of a BioWare game than the last BioWare game was. It allowed you to develop your Kassandra or Alexios how you wanted, and the story had genuine branching paths depending on how much of a bloodthirsty, literal backstabbing misthios you played.
The unfortunate exception here is the first DLC, Legacy of the First Blade. The second episode forced your character into continuing their bloodline by shacking up with a minor character, even if you’d made it clear that your version of the protagonist was super gay (technical term). It hit a sour note with a lot of players, and likely served as a reminder to Ubisoft that if they’re going to allow players this kind of agency, especially within the confines of a presumably tightly plotted series, they have to commit.
With the next game all but confirmed as being set during the age of the Vikings and the developers of Odyssey working on a more cartoony take on Greek mythology called Gods and Monsters, it’ll be interesting to see what road the next game takes, and what parts of this one were used as a pilot for Gods and Monsters.
As always with this franchise, there’s a lot to improve on and a lot that can be discarded. They could stray even further and ditch the assassinations entirely, because when the hell was the last time you heard of a Viking assassin?
But the real question here is: Does this series even want to be Assassin’s Creed anymore? Or does it just want the kind reviews, built-in audience and guaranteed pre-orders that the brand name provides?